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Prisons: Violence

Volume 769: debated on Thursday 3 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to tackle the incidence of deaths, serious assaults and incidents of self-harm in prison.

My Lords, the Government recognise the seriousness of this problem and are taking action to respond. We are trialling the use of body-worn video cameras, the Psychoactive Substances Act will introduce new offences to control supply and possession and we have reviewed the process for supporting prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm. We recognise that our prison system needs reform, and there is much more to do to ensure that prisons are places of decency, hope and rehabilitation.

My Lords, 2015 saw a record number of deaths in custody, a 20% increase in assaults and a 25% increase in self-harm incidents. Those increases were over record figures the previous year. The Justice Secretary appears committed, rightly, to prison reform, but has he been promised the resources to address the causes of these dreadful figures—squalid conditions, overcrowding, understaffing and prisoners locked for far too long in their cells?

The causes of violence are multifactorial. They include of course the increased use of psychoactive substances, to which the Government are responding positively. It is a ceaseless challenge to try to prevent them coming into prison, but we have a new offence, and we are taking steps to make it very difficult for these substances to be thrown over walls or secreted in parts of the body. It is generally a significant challenge. We are also looking at a two-year violence reduction project, to help us better understand the causes and characteristics of violence and to strengthen our handling of it. There is also the use of body-worn cameras. Ultimately, the best way to reduce violence may be to give, as the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have suggested, much more power to prison governors to give them the tools necessary to reform the way their prisons are run and to help rehabilitate offenders.

My Lords, we are all deeply concerned about the number of deaths in prison, but I wish in particular to raise the issue of the increasing number of trans people who are taking their own lives in prison. Are there special provisions for dealing with the LGBT community, in particular the trans community? If so, will the Minister publish them so we can ensure that they are fit for purpose?

There is a prison service instruction in relation to the care and management of transsexual offenders, which is being reviewed. People with particular experience of these issues are involved in the review, including Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust and Jay Stewart of Gendered Intelligence respectively. We are concerned of course to tackle this very delicate issue, so that those who are on the journey, very often to change gender, are properly looked after and their considerations taken into account, so that prison can be adapted in a way that most suits their requirements.

My Lords, in the light of the welcome announcement last autumn that a number of the old, unsuitable prisons were going to be replaced with purpose-built ones, will the Minister assure the House that the specifications for those new-builds will take very careful account of mental health issues, consulting with the charities that are dealing with this particular area and producing excellent educational, medical and spiritual facilities, so that we can minimise the level of mental health problems and maximise rehabilitation?

The right reverend Prelate makes an important point. He will have been reassured by what the Prime Minister said in his speech on 8 February—namely, that the design of these new prisons should be particularly directed towards helping mental health treatment. If necessary, that should allow individual governors to have appropriate control, with co-commissioning with NHS England to ensure that the significant numbers of inmates in prisons with mental health problems are adequately treated.

My Lords, following the right reverend Prelate’s question, can my noble friend tell us what percentage of prisoners have been diagnosed with mental illness problems, and is prison the best place to treat them?

The NICE estimate is that 90% of prisoners have at least one psychiatric disorder. Of course, the precise nature of a psychiatric disorder will vary. With many of them, prison may not be the correct place to treat them—although there may be other factors that make it appropriate for them to be there. NHS England has developed national specifications for health and justice services in English prisons and all prisons have clear commissioning models that focus on outcomes specific to custodial settings. All judges who sentence offenders will, or should, have adequate information to allow them to sentence appropriately. It then becomes a matter for the prison estate as to how best they are housed.

My Lords, the Minister may be aware that there are about 82,000 men in our prisons and over 3,000 women. Those women are responsible for about 50% of the self-harm in prison. Furthermore, since my report published nine years ago this week, the number of women who took their own lives in English prisons last year was a record. Two have taken their lives this year already, in the first two months. What factors does he think underline the deterioration in the safety of women in our prisons?

On the positive side, the female prison population is now under 4,000—the lowest it has ever been. In the speech I referred to earlier, the Prime Minister made a particular point of the importance of finding alternative ways of dealing with women offenders, preferably avoiding sending them to prison altogether, which has been very much the trend with sentencing. Of course, there will be an irreducible number who have to be sent to prison. Although the noble Baroness is quite right that any suicide in prison is a matter of complete regret, and self-harm is equally concerning, we are in the process of modernising the prison estate to ensure that there are the best regimes and that women are held in environments that better meet their gender-specific needs.

My Lords, the Minister must have read the report in 2015 by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons—a devastating report that talks about violence and poor conditions in our prisons. The most disturbing aspect of the report and the allegation made by the then Chief Inspector, Nick Hardwick was that the Secretary of State tried to influence his report. Will the Minister make sure that that sort of thing does not happen in future? Public confidence will be eroded if independent reports by prison inspectors are interfered with by Ministers.

The noble Lord is right to suggest that the report by Mr Hardwick was unfavourable in a number of respects. The Government will learn lessons from what he said. It is important that we should take on board an objective analysis of that. It is perhaps an indication of the Secretary of State’s willingness to embrace criticism that he has appointed Mr Hardwick to have continued involvement in the criminal justice system, by his appointment as chair of the Parole Board. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that that is a real sign of somebody getting to grips with a critical friend of the system.